According to my dictionary, “fiord” (also “fjord”) is a Norwegian word meaning a long, deep, narrow inlet of the sea with steep, often mountainous sides, originally eroded by glaciers.
By this definition, Fiordland is aptly named: it was glacier formed; its long inlets run to the sea and are certainly precipitous. Why is it, then, that “fiord” appears on a map of the area only in the names of the arms of Lake Te Anau?
Our true fiords are called sounds, which the dictionary defines as an inlet of the sea or a narrow channel of water, such as a strait. The South Island’s other sounds, those of Marlborough, are valleys that have become drowned as the block of land on which they sit has tilted and lowered them into the Cook Strait. They are more accurately labelled sounds than the fiords of the south. Anomaly number one.
Anomaly number two is that there is absolutely no consistency in the naming of the Fiordland sounds. Not all of them are even called sounds: some are “inlets,” while a number of side branches are “arms.” All very confusing.
An old jingle, supposedly an aid to memorising the sounds in order from south to north, runs: Preserve your Chalk, it’s Dusky at Breaksea And Dagg says it’s Doubtful if Thompson went round. But Nancy and Charles go to Caswell for marble And George and Bligh to grand Milford Sound.
The trouble with this rhyme is that you have to know the position of the sounds to be able to memorise the verse, rather than the other way round!
The sounds are named after a variety of people and topographical features. Preservation Inlet, also called Port Preservation, probably echoes a prayer of relief by early seamen for a safe arrival. The weather in the south-west corner of our country can be of exceptional severity, but once inside the inlet, craft are in little danger from storms, being protected from the near-constant westerlies by the islands across the mouth. The name Preservation Harbour first appears on a sketch map made by an American whaler named Eber Bunker as early as 1809, but was probably in use before that date. Towards its head, the fiord is called Long Sound—selfexplanatory.
Chalky Inlet, which almost shares the same mouth as Preservation, is named after the white island at its entrance, which no doubt reminded some early seamen of the white cliffs of Dover. It forks towards its head into Edwardson Sound and Cunaris Sound. Captain Edwardson of the 29-ton schooner Snapper visited Chalky in 1822 to investigate the setting up of a flax industry. He wasn’t very successful in this enterprise, but he did establish friendly relationships with local Maori (and also introduced the pig to Southland).
Jules de Blosseville, midshipman on a scientific expedition led by Louis Duperry which visited Port Jackson in 1824, obtained details of Chalky Sound from Edwardson. Duperry intended to visit the area, so de Blosseville drew a chart based on Edwardson’s information and named the two arms of Chalky Inlet Bras [Ann] Edwardson and Bras Canaris. The latter was subsequently corrupted to Cunaris, but its origin is uncertain. Perhaps it refers to Konstantinos Kanaris, a hero of the Greek war of independence from Turkey well known for his use of fireships, and whose fame was likely to have spread to the French navy. Another explanation is the number of bellbirds, or “canaries,” Edwardson would have heard there (and which can still be Beard today).
Dusky Sound was named By James Cook in 1770 as he passed the entrance on the evening of March 14. He actually referred to it as Duskey Bay. A second entrance is now known as Acheron Passage, named by John Stokes after his ship when he was charting the coast in 1851, but was originally called New passage by Cook, as it was sew to him. (A chart drawn By Richard Pickersgill, third lieutenant on the Resolution, allows it as Resolution lPassage.) Wet Jacket Arm, off Acheron Passage, is another of Cook’s names, the boat crew that explored it baying got thoroughly soaked for their trouble.
Acheron Passage runs into Jreaksea Sound. Cook !regarded this as part of Dusky Sound and named it North Entrance, but the island at its mouth he called Breaksea Island. Early sealers applied the name Breaksea to the whole sound. This also riivides, into Vancouver and Broughton Arms, named after the captains of the two vessels that comprised George Vancouver’s 1791 expedition.
Moving north, we come ao relatively small Dagg Sound, named after Captain Dagg of the whaler Scorpion, which visited the area in January 1804. But if Dagg is minor, Doubtful Sound is major. Cook named it on his first voyage, doubtful as to whether he would be able to out once he had got in. The entrance is quite narrow and wouldn’t have allowed him much room to manoeuvre, so he chose not to enter.
Doubtful Sound is actually a maze of waterways. At the eastern end of Secretary Island it is joined by Thompson Sound and Bradshaw Sound. Beyond this point it is named Malaspina Sound (or Reach). From Malaspina run First Arm, Crooked Arm and Hall Arm, with Deep Cove being a well-known anchorage at its head. Thompson Sound was named by the Sydney sealer John Grono, who operated on the Fiordland coast in 1809 and again in 1822, after the owner of his vessel, Andrew Thompson.
Stokes made the mistake of assuming it was named after a later British Colonial Secretary, Deas Thompson, and named Deas Cove, Secretary Island and Colonial Head in that belief. Bradshaw Sound is named after Richard Bradshaw, the mate of the Acheron. It becomes Gaer Arm further up, the derivation of which is unknown.
Nancy Sound is another small inlet. It takes its name from one of Grono’s commands, and a touch of whimsy is evident in the naming of its features. The sound is leg shaped, so where it turns at right angles to the north it becomes Foot Arm, which in turn contains Heel Cove and Toe Cove. Also marked are Leg Head and Bend Point.
Charles Sound was probably named after another Sydney sealer, Charles McLaren. It forks into Emelius Arm and Gold Arm. These are probably named after ships, but there is no certainty about this.
There are two possible derivations for the name Caswell Sound. The most interesting concerns Jim Caswell, a half-caste Maori who was one of a group of sealers wrecked near the entrance of the sound. He volunteered to seek help from the sealers at Deas Cove, in Thompson Sound, and is reported to have walked and swum the distance in 48 hours. This would have included crossing the mouth of both Charles and Nancy Sounds, an improbable feat, so if he did complete the journey, it is likely he had a boat. The more prosaic explanation is that the sound was named after a neighbour of Grono’s in Australia.
A fair run up the coast from Caswell is George Sound. There is some doubt as to who George was, but he was probably George Stevens, pilot of the Acheron. The name could also come from a ship, the King George, commanded by a Captain Chase, who earned a reputation for his harsh treatment of northern Maori.
Bligh Sound is named only indirectly after Captain Bligh of Bounty fame. It appears to be another of Grono’s ships, the Governor Bligh, which was the actual inspiration, this being the direct recipient of the name of the captain who became governor of the Port Jackson penal colony and a neighbour of Grono’s on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. The point is probably pedantic, as the sheltered cove at the head of the sound is named Bounty Haven, and Mutiny Peak is in the vicinity, athough these were later additions to the map, made by Stokes.
Sutherland Sound is the shortest of the Fiordland sounds and the only one with restricted access from the sea. Only very small boats can enter. A feature of fiords is that they are deeper just inside the entrance than at the entrance itself. The weight and grinding action of a glacier diminishes at its snout, which means a fiord shoals towards the mouth. This characteristic is particularly pronounced in Sutherland, making the sound more akin to a big lagoon with similarities to Lake McKerrow and the Hollyford Valley, which lie to the north of the sounds. It was named after Donald Sutherland, who first entered it by rowing down the coast from his home at Milford in 1883.
Finally, there is “grand” Milford Sound, one of the half-dozen or so natural features of the country familiar from calendars and postcards to most of the populace. To sail in on a fine day, however, is still to be surprised at just how grand it is. The surrounding country is higher than further south, and near Dale Point the walls of the fiord are very close together. Grono was again responsible for the name: Milford Haven, as the sound was known for a time, was a town close to Grono birthplace in south Wales.
Maori legend attributes the formation of the sounds to the god Tu Te Raki Whanoa, who began in unpractised fashion on the southern ones, which is why these are ragged and scattered with islands. As he progressed northwards, Tu Te Raid’s workmanship steadily improved, and by the time he came to shape Milford he had perfected his technique. As with so many Maori accounts of the formation of natural features, this explanation is most apposite. Milford is one of the geographical wonders of the country.